Working Smarter

Five Ways to Unleash the Antidote to Work Stress and Overwhelm: Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you saw someone freaking out because they were completely in control of their work? I’m going to take a wild guess: never. Feeling that you have control over demands means that the demands are no longer a threat, and, as a result, they can’t turn on your ancient defense equipment, the stress response.

Control is the difference between managing work and life pressures and being at the frayed mercy of them. It’s a critical distinction in an unbounded world of devices and distractions, where so many things are intruding into working memories and limited bandwidths that it seems we have no control over anything. As the unmanaged email and interruption count skyrockets, so does overwhelm, which explodes when there are more demands than we think we can keep up with.

THE FUEL OF JOB STRESS

When things are out of control, you can bet stress and work-life balance are too. Work-life balance is itself an exercise in control, trying to ensure that both work and home responsibilities are being handled.

Researcher Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts identified the central mechanism in work stress as the level of demands versus the amount of control over them. The more decision “latitude” you have, the ability to affect the work you do and how you do it, the less stress. High demands and low control add up to high stress. High demands and high control, though, mean the work is manageable, even enjoyable as a challenge.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Karasek’s job strain model demonstrated that employees with the least decision-making options had more exhaustion, depression and sleep issues. These unhealthy impacts of little latitude have been vetted by scads of research over the years, including the landmark British Whitehall Studies, I and II, which examined some 28,000 civil servants altogether. Those investigations found a clear connection between stress and the position of the person in the organization hierarchy. The lowest ranking people, who had the least decision-making discretion, had a mortality rate three times higher than administrators.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is also what Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky found in his research with apes. Those on the bottom of the social totem pole were the most stressed and least healthy. Helplessness is stressful, and in humans it leads to a downward spiral of pessimism and depression.

LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Having the ability to control the work environment makes a massive difference in how brains process demands. When we can’t do anything about job demands mental strain develops. That in turn can set off the body’s defense equipment, since you aren’t able to take actions to cope with the demands. Not being able to mitigate a demand that is perceived as a threat is the definition of stress—and a fight-or-flight trigger.

Control isn’t just key to managing demands, it’s also the essential element of attention, performance, and doing the tasks that need to be done. It’s a managing partner with self-regulation in discipline and willpower to keep you focused on task. Stress undermines intellect and constricts the brain to perceived crises and rumination in tenses other than the one you’re trying to work in, which shreds focus and concentration. The same is true of missing work-life balance, the lack of which is an ongoing source of concern and guilt, taking minds far afield when home issues aren’t being handled.

Obviously, we can’t all be control freaks on the job. We are there to do what others want, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more flexibility in how individuals choose to do and think about the practices they are tasked with and how managers frame the tasks to be done. This is the dynamic behind autonomy support, one of the most effective systems for increasing employee engagement, when people willingly put forth extra effort. It’s based on tapping into core human needs such as autonomy and competence, which bolster perception of self-control by increasing employee involvement and responsibility.

Getting more control over your work-life is a matter of taking many practical steps to better organize, plan, and manage an unbounded world. It comes down to something that all humans are primed to do for their own safety and well-being—make life more predictable. Threats are manageable when we have wrestled them into more predictable paths and outcomes. I’m not saying you have to be a psychic, but you do have to take steps to harness the bucking broncos in your life and minimize the possibility of being thrown.

Here are a few steps that can help you feel more control:

1. Control Email and Devices. If you have your email on autopilot, with incoming every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. Unbounded email is a great way to drive overwhelm. Check your email at designated times. Three and four times a day is the most productive, say U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State researchers. Keep your email and phone turned off and check them manually when you decide, not the startle response set off by device noisemakers.

2. Interruption Management. Disable the visual alerts on your screen. Set aside times, 30 minutes here, an hour there, for no-interruption zones. Put a message on your autoresponder that you’re on a deadline. Researchers say that when you’re being interrupted, it makes anything you’re doing seem more difficult, i. e., out of control, than it actually is.

3. Stop Multitasking. Circus clowns can juggle bowling pins, but you can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time. There’s only one neural channel for language to go through. You are not talking on the phone and doing email at the same time. You are switching back and forth. In that switching there’s a cost: stress, as brain neurons try to figure out where they were before they jumped to the secondary task.

4. Ask for a Rationale. Studies show that when we ask for a rationale for doing a task or give one to someone we’re asking to do something, the task gets internalized, and it becomes something more important and makes us feel we are exercising choice, autonomy, latitude. This undercuts hierarchy and order-taking strain.

5. Time Estimation. Take time and figure out how long it takes you to do each of your primary tasks. When you are asked to do one of them, you then have a hard time estimate, instead of wishful optimism, about how long it’s going to take to do it.

And finally, Karasek pinpointed demands that drive low control and strain—time pressure, reaction time needed, pacing, amount of work, having to wait for others to do their part of the task, interruptions, and concentration needed. How could you and your team adjust these demands to make them more manageable?

Propose alternative ways of doing a task that would allow you to feel it’s more manageable. Studies show that speaking up doesn't have the whammy we think. It’s how everyone finds out what isn’t working, in other words, what’s out of control.

If you would like to train your team in effective work practices, reduce stress, and increase productivity, click the button below for details on our time management training, stress management training, and work-life balance programs.

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Tags: work stress, job stress, stress management, stress, reducing stress, overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed, job strain model

The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload

Posted by Joe Robinson

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DESPITE A FLOOD of technology investment in the workplace in recent years, productivity gains are at their lowest since 1982. Economists are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. In the past, technology improvements were followed by big productivity gains. Why not this time? A lot of us under the thumb of 24/7 technology know the answer to that one. 

Digital overload. Too much technology has swamped the human capacity to deal with it. Instead of helping us get our jobs done, it’s making our work harder and longer. 

THE QUAGMIRE OF UNBOUNDED TECHNOLOGY

It’s on display every time I conduct a work-life balance, stress management, or time management (Managing Crazy Busy Work) training, which I did last week at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Executives from Pepsi to Starbucks to Microsoft told me they were drowning in messaging and digital interruptions to the point they can’t keep up with it all and feel like they’re constantly falling behind.

One executive told me he feels a semblance of control if he can get his email box down to 200. A couple people in the training were getting more than 300 messages a day. That means doing email at home to catch up, which drives exhaustion, crowds out recovery options, and grinds down performance.

Technology is helpful when humans are in charge of it. Most of the time these days, we’re not. We’re at the mercy of unbounded in-boxes, information overload, and distractions. 

How many of you have been known to sleep with your significant other who’s not your partner? Your smartphone. Based on my experiences, it’s well more than a few.

We have lost one of the most basic management tools: boundaries. The devices are running us, instead of the other way around. As a result, most people are in retaliatory mode all day, reacting to what’s coming at them—acting before they think. That drives time frenzy, crisis mentality, overwhelm, and poor time management, not to mention bad performance, because our chief productivity tool, attention, is under assault.

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

What we don’t understand about digital devices is that they are supposed to work for us, to help us, not barrage our working memory and survival equipment all day. We're supposed to be in charge.

All the bongs, chirps, chimes, and pulses play to what’s known as bottom-up attention. That’s what happens when you hear a loud noise. Your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were focused on to see what the threat is. It sets off the startle response, a stressor, interruptor, and all-around saboteur of working memory.

Intel estimated the cost of lost productivity per year due to email overload at $1 billion for a company with 50,000 workers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put humans back in charge with a set of rules and guidelines that rein in the abuse.

A solution is long overdue. Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 10 years ago, we used to shift between work spheres—online to offline and back again—every three minutes. Now it’s every 45 seconds. Her research shows that it takes an average of up to 25 minutes after answering an email for someone to get back to what they were doing before the interruption. We open a browser, talk to a colleague, and self-distract after an interruption.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

Interruptions throw us seriously off track. They do that by blowing up working memory, that fragile collection of germinal thoughts that we can hang on to for only a few seconds and that is at the heart of self-discipline and concentration. Research has shown that interruptions can slow us down by up to 27% and make everything we do seem more difficult than it is.

Interruptions can lower IQ up to 10 points. This is why we make suspect decisions under the influence of distractions.

Multitasking, which is really a misnomer (you can’t do two high cognitive tasks at one time), reduces productivity more than 40%, from all the switching back and forth that brain neurons have to do, according to research at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there are all the mistakes that come from multitasking, or what it really should be called—simultaneous inattention.

The problem is worse than we think, since we don’t understand the impact that unbounded devices and interruptions are having on our brains and self-regulatory equipment. Interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

We are losing ability to regulate impulsivity. Without self-regulation, the discipline needed to avoid temptation and be able to focus, we’re backsliding into addictive behavior. As Gayle Porter at Rutgers found in her research, technology is as addicting as any substance.

EVERY EMAIL RESULTS IN SIX

In a poll at my Scottsdale training, the biggest distraction and time sink was email, which is growing at a rate of 25% a year. The volume is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back, as we try to tease out what someone is saying and find a polite way to exit the conversation. The good news is that we can do something about email, interruptions, and multitasking. We can create boundaries, rules of the digital road that restore control. 

For instance, we can create manual checking schedules, which reseearchers have documented increase productivity and reduce chaos. We can make sure everyone knows that if something is an emergency, then that requires a phone call. This way people don't have to be checking email every five minutes for fear of missing an emergency.

Does your organization have an email or interruption management strategy? Our programs provide the tools to get the deluge under control, including an Email Etiquette Guidebook and Interruption Norms Rulebook.

Most organizations today are operating without norms and standards, which leads to digital abuse and triage mode all day.

Our productivity and time management training give your team the best practices vetted by the research to keep the productivity killer of unbounded technology at bay. When we develop new practices and norms and address bottlenecks, the chaos and stress ends, minds and working memory refocus, and more work gets done in less time.

Learn how to rein in information overload for your team. Click the button below for details on how our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy Busy Work time management trainings can make your organization less crazed and more effective.

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Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, feeling overwhelmed, information overload, time management programs

John Lennon's Path to Stress Management: Reach Out

Posted by Joe Robinson

John Lennon reached out in "Help"

The Beatles made reaching out respectable as far back as 1965 with the iconic strains of “Help.” John Lennon said he wrote the song as a cry for help to escape a depressive period in his life.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s still not easy in a culture of rugged individualism to ask for a hand. That’s especially true when it comes to work-related issues. We’re supposed to suck it up in silence, and keep on going till the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving, so we need a smarter approach.

I met one manager at an aerospace firm who was back at work after a heart attack. He was already worried he was going to have a recurrence. A scientist in Tennessee told me how he was hauled out of his office on a stretcher after his myocardial infarction and remembers his panic as the siren wailed in the ambulance on the way to the hosptial.

A social worker told me about her nervous breakdown, set off by an overwhelming caseload.  She didn’t even tell her husband how serious her stress had been until she was in an ER bed. At one training I did for a large consulting firm, staff members reflected on the heart attack death on a hotel bathroom floor of one of their hardest road-warrior workers, someone who was only in his 40s.

FEAR AND EGO

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem, and we have to face up to it as organizations and professionals. All the tragic events above could have been avoided if people had just asked for help—if individuals had reached out when things got beyond their capacity, if managers had reached out to staff or to leadership for training in stress management or time management.

It’s hard to be productive when you’re in an ER or six feet under. So why is it so hard to ask for help? Fear and ego override common sense and even self-preservation. We don’t want to let managers or peers think we can’t handle our responsibilities, fearing we’ll be thought of as lightweights or that we will jeopardize career or promotions. Egos tell us that admitting we need help would be a failure. Like all fear, these are projections that something will happen that almost never does. Irrational self-talk locks in false beliefs that put your health and even maybe your life in jeopardy.

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Denial fuels more stress, because it keeps the false belief driving the stress entrenched through rumination. The more we think about the false belief the more it feels true. Health consequences from your work are flares from your physiology to examine what’s not working and what you can do about it.

STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?

Part of the problem of reaching out is that we are led to believe that it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s an indication that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. One Harvard report about speaking up in the workplace called the word “No,” the voice-oriented improvement system. We move forward when we find out what's not working and remain counterproductive as long as we don’t say anything. Think about dialogue, not as a sign of failure, but of progress—problem-solving ineffective behavior, such as stress and burnout, that can cost you dearly and the company five to seven times more than the average workplace malady.

Fear and ego blind us to the irony that, to appear strong and play the bravado game, we consign bodies and minds to physical weakness. Are CEO’s weak who bring in consultants to chart a new path? No, it’s considered smart to bring in expertise to solve problems.

That’s all we are doing when we speak up and let someone know there’s too much on our plate or a department is too overwhelmed to avoid making serious mistakes. We are solving problems.

Asking for help isn’t a character flaw, it’s a sign of character, of knowing when to  say when, determining when we have diminishing returns, identifying when we have more than we can do well. It’s a sign of strength.

GETTING UNSTUCK

Ignoring health problems is a big lose-lose for employees and companies. Let’s set a new standard to change this. If the way you are working is affecting your health, it’s time to reach out. If the people on your team or department are racking up doctor appointments or citing burnout, it’s time to reach out. If stress and crisis mentality is rampant, it’s time to reach out.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Most of my coaching clients contact me when they are on absolute fumes, when a small spark could cause a conflagration. It’s no different than going to a personal trainer or music teacher. You move forward through new knowledge, through strategies that take an outside ear and expertise. Our brains generate ideas through associations, putting this idea with that random one. It’s inefficient, time-consuming, and it often leads to an association dead-end. We get stuck in association cul-de-sacs and can’t get out on our own.

The same is true for organizations. If your department is reeling, don’t wait for the entire company to do something, reach out and explore a stress management, work-life balance, or productivity training for your team. Get solutions to overwhelm and burnout that everyone knows are undermining productive efforts, rapport, and future success.

“Help me get my feet back on the ground,” sang John Lennon. Ask, and chances are you shall receive.

If you would like to explore individual coaching or a training program for your team, click on the button below and turn challenges into strengths.

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Tags: job stress, work life balance programs, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs, feeling overwhelmed, work-life balance coach, work stress and health, asking for help

7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feeling overwhelmed by workload

There’s enough on most plates these days to keep an 18-armed Hindu goddess busy. As a result, more and more of us feel overwhelmed by all we have to do and the scant time with which we have to do it. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than half of Americans have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on their agendas.

As a result, “overwhelm” has morphed from a verb to a noun and a growing problem for buried individuals and companies alike. Overwhelmed minds get hijacked by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems. It’s a condition I see everywhere in my work-life balanceproductivity and stress management training work, and it’s a serious one, since feeling overwhelmed is a sign that demands have outstripped the ability to cope with them.

When humans tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and, therefore, out of control and helpless, that tells an ancient part of the brain that doesn’t know how to compute non-life threatening social stressors in the 21st century, “I’m going to die.” Off goes the stress response and the fear, anxiety, and crisis mentality that go with it.

PILING ON

Managing overwhelm and crazy-busy schedules is about restoring a sense of control and what the psychology world calls “agency.” You feel you have the ability to act to change things. When you feel overwhelmed, there’s a sense of being a helpless bystander as everything and everyone piles on. The constant barrage of interruptions and email keeps you jumping to their demands, instead of you calling the tune, at the mercy of what’s known as “bottom-up” attention, a survival and startle instinct that fuels loss of control.

The more perceived control you feel you have over your work environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman showed in seminal research that, faced with an overwhelming threat that appears to have no end, some people give up and wind up in a state he calls learned helplessness, believing resistance is futile.

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This leads to a pessimistic “explanatory style” that locks in futility and ultimately depression. Explanatory style is the way we frame stories in our heads about why things happen to us. It’s the little-known culprit behind everything from stress, to negative mood, to taking things personally, to depression.

CHANGING SELF-TALK

The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. That means telling ourselves a different story, since self-talk drives stress, and, instead of operating on reflex with devices and people around us, getting proactive with boundaries, prioritization, and breaks to refuel minds and bodies.

Let’s look at seven ways we can activate these strategies to keep overwhelm at bay:

1. Change your explanatory style. It’s easy to lock in false beliefs by repeating them often enough. Setbacks and stressors set off catastrophic stories, courtesy of the caveman brain, that aren’t true even though they are in your head. They have to be countered. You can feel less overwhelmed by not telling yourself you are. Also ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope,” etc., which are easy triggers for the stress response. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. The glass is half-full.

2. Get it out of your head. Human brains are not built for storage, but for processing. Trying to keep all your to-do’s sloshing around in your brain fuels anxiety about how you’re going to get it all done. Cut to-do angst by writing down next actions for each task on your list. As Florida State researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister and Getting Things Done guru David Allen have proven, unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks. Writing them down releases the brain to focus on the moment.

3. Qualify urgency. Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. If you are the type of person who celebrates how busy you are, that can add to the workload and lock you in to overperformance at every moment as essential to your identity.

4. Say, “Let me get back to you.” People who are overwhelmed tend to have a hard time setting boundaries. They are over-optimistic about how much they can get done and how fast. Self-management begins with basic boundaries. You can’t take on more than you can do well. When you get an assignment and you have a big stack on your plate, say, Let me get back to you. Clarify your time lines and priorities, and let them know what's on your plate.

5. Set the terms of engagement with devices. Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the bottom-up attention of unbounded messaging and interruptions, and you feel in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Every email results in six emails.

6. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. A host of studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt show that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one channel for language to flow through. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. That causes it to take longer, some 50% longer, to complete tasks, and the interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are, which fuels overwhelm.

7. Reach out for support. When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. Reach out for support. Others can vet our stories and bring fresh perspective. There are always other ways of arranging workflow.

Overwhelm is a cumulative condition. It builds by default without boundaries and systems to work more productively and create more work-life balance. The hardest workers can easily turn into burnout cases when they are doing more than they can possibly do well. That's a lose-lose for organization and employee.

If your team is overwhelmed and would like to take back control, click the button below for more information on our work-life balance, productivity, and stress management trainings.

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Tags: job stress, job burnout, stress management programs, overwhelm, productivity programs, crazy busy, multitasking and stress, feeling overwhelmed, information overload and stress, interruptions

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